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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Admission is free on Feb. 22 for George Washington’s birthday. Admission tickets will be distributed on-site upon arrival.
Mount Vernon's resident fifer Don Francisco uses music to inspire and educate.
Visitors to Mount Vernon tend to hear Don Francisco before they see him. After all, the high-pitched whistle of his fife was designed to resonate across encampments and battlefields. As a history interpreter and Mount Vernon’s resident fifer, Don roams the estate, performing battle hymns and marching songs of the Revolutionary War, and teaching guests about the role of music throughout George Washington’s life.
Don started at Mount Vernon five years ago, after retiring from the United States Army, where he served for 30 years as a soldier-musician. He began studying music as a sixth grader in New Orleans after a guest performer played the flute at his school. She inspired him to pick up the flute and piccolo, and he embarked on a lifelong love of performing.
Knowing he wanted to pursue music in the military, Don enlisted in the army after high school and auditioned for its band. He started in the 5th Infantry Division Band at Fort Polk, Louisiana, before joining the 8th U.S. Army Band in Seoul, South Korea. He then auditioned for the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, where he stayed for the duration of his service. While in this unit, Don learned to play the fife.
“It was a challenge for me and an opportunity to grow intellectually, musically, socially, and spiritually,” Don said.
This unit of about 70 musicians, based at Fort Myer, Virginia, dons uniforms similar to those worn by musicians in the Continental Army and averages 500 performances around the world each year—including occasions at Mount Vernon. “Before I retired, I worked at Mount Vernon as a soldier doing ceremonies,” Don said. “The February before I retired, I performed on the bowling green for Washington’s birthday celebration. Little did I know, later that year, I’d be coming back here in a different role!”
Mount Vernon Resident Fifer Don Francisco. Photo by Stephen Elliot. (MVLA)
Don leads a program titled “Music of the Revolution,” in which he plays the fife and drum to teach visitors about the young fifers who sounded calls to give directions to soldiers in the Revolutionary War.
“It’s a really neat program that people interact with. I enjoy the collaboration where I share information with guests and I learn something new from the visitors,” Don said. “I also like when the kids march along with me. Some have great rhythm, while others can’t keep a tune. But it’s about the teamwork, learning how to lead and how to follow. In that way, being in the army prepared me for working here.”
Beyond his daily program, Don entertains visitors by playing familiar tunes such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He plays a basic six-holed fife made from one piece of wood with metal barrels on the ends—a similar instrument to those used in the 18th century. However, as a self-described “fifaholic,” Don has collected dozens of fifes made of wood, glass, silver, and plastic over the years.
“My prayer and goal is to add something that guests can take back with them—to hear the sounds of revolution, learn something new, and help Mount Vernon come alive with music.”
Join Mount Vernon's Resident Fifer Don Francisco for an abridged version of his Music of the Revolution program with a focus on three African-American Revolutionary War fifers.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More